We’ve all heard the curmudgeonly old timer pine for the days of yesteryear when “men were men”— not the kind who wash dishes and change diapers like today, mind you, and certainly not those who sleep together and now marry each other.
Yet the past has always been a far more nuanced affair than we’d like to admit. Take, for instance, the malleability of gender over time, illustrated in the rather peculiar cross-dressing pageants known as “womanless weddings” popular in the first half of the 20th century.
In these farcical stagings of a traditional marriage ceremony, not only was the “bride” played by a man, but so too were the bridesmaids, flower girls, ring bearers, mother-in-laws and more. The womanless wedding, noted The Pantagraph in 1926, “always draws a crowd and brings much merriment.”
The popularity was partly due to the fact that respectable community leaders, including bankers, storekeepers, educators, ministers and farmers, served as the cross-dressing thespians. And so from the 1910s through World War II and a few years afterward, womanless weddings doubled as popular fundraisers for churches, charities and other local causes. Even organizations such as the American Legion would sponsor these gender-bending spectacles, with Legionnaires appearing in the cast wearing makeup, wigs, high heels and who knows what all. Sometimes the “wedding” would continue as a staged “dance,” though the production would remain all-male.
This curious phenomenon apparently emerged from the American South, but proved popular in the North as well, especially in the staid (or so we’re told) Midwestern corn belt.
World War I and the many associated fundraising drives proved a boon to womanless weddings. In early 1918, the Red Cross chapter in Heyworth had a “neat sum of money” for war work, thanks in part to a recent womanless wedding fundraiser that brought in about $175. And the Lexington Red Cross netted between $225 and $250 after a March 15, 1918, womanless wedding that filled every seat at the Scenic Theatre.
For some reason womanless weddings were more popular in small towns than in the larger communities like Bloomington-Normal. In Shirley, the local Order of the Eastern Star put on a womanless wedding on Oct. 29, 1930, with tickets going for 25 and 35 cents. Organizations could make use of existing womanless wedding scripts (such as one by southern author and playwright Hubert Hayes that could be performed in 40 minutes), and sometimes wedding costumes, scenery and props held by larger organizations were passed from one local chapter or club to the next.
Church groups were a common sponsor of womanless weddings, such as the packed shows on Feb. 27-28, 1930, by the Men’s Brotherhood class of Park Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloomington. Interestingly, women often served as stage directors for these “womanless” productions, and so the Park Methodist show was “coached” by Marguerite Cole, wife of Pastor Alfred E. Cole.
On occasion local groups would add a layer of absurdity to the already comical proceedings. On March 6-7, 1941, the Gridley Parent Teacher Association staged a “hillbilly” themed womanless wedding. The doubly strange entertainment included “square dances to make it a real ‘back-in-the-woods’ wedding.”
Womanless weddings could also be part of larger programs performed in drag that included impersonations of Hollywood starlets and pinup favorites. On Apr. 30, 1943, during World War II, the village of McLean held a USO-Methodist Church benefit that included more than 30 McLean businessmen and area farmers comprising the all-male-cast. “Wendell Longworth will do the slinking for Mae West,” reported The Pantagraph, “and the Rev. Dwight K. Sailor will double for Kirsten Flagstad” (the latter being the famed Norwegian opera singer).
In 1955, several area volunteer fire departments staged a “Funnybone Follies,” described as a comedy-variety show that included a womanless wedding and residents hamming it up as movie and television personalities. These follies were held in the DeWitt County community of Wapella on July 14-15, and then in San Jose, a town that straddles Mason, Logan and Tazewell counties, on Oct. 4-5.
Though much on the wane, this tradition continued into the 1960s. On April 28, 1961, Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church, then located at the corner of Lee Street and Oakland Avenue, held such an event with Dewitt Taylor as the bride and Wheeler Bell as the groom.
Looming over the issue of womanless weddings and their popularity is the question of just what, exactly, was going on here? Historian Craig Thompson Friend, author of the 2009 book “Southern Masculinity," has said these performances represented a “ritual of inversion,” in that by outwardly undermining the institution of marriage and notions of masculinity, such frolics in fact reaffirmed these and other societal norms.
Perhaps, but there are also good odds that more than a few of these upstanding citizens liked to dress in women’s clothes and enjoyed the opportunity to strut their stuff in public without censure. Anyway, if we’ve learned anything these past several months (think Caitlyn Jenner and the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision) it’s that gender is more pliable, biologically and socially speaking, than simply the rigid dichotomy of male/female.
And given the past popularity of womanless weddings, this insight would’ve come as no surprise to some of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.